Lack of Abortion Care Can Kill

Lack of Abortion Care Can Kill

by Terry Bellamak

One of the most transparently ludicrous claims anti-abortion types have made in recent years is that ‘abortion is never medically necessary.’

Tell that to Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis after being denied abortion care in Ireland. Tell it to Valentina Miluzzo, who died of sepsis after being denied abortion care in Italy. Tell it to Agnieska T and the other unnamed woman who died of sepsis after being denied abortion care in Poland.

None of them had to die. All of them had treatable medical conditions. But the treatment required the abortion of their planned, wanted pregnancies.

Restricting abortion care leads inevitably to pregnant people dying. When doctors risk imprisonment for allowing an abortion, they are incentivised to wait until the patient is close to death so that authorities don’t challenge their decision. 

But even less stringent restrictions can put pregnant people in danger when abortion is so stigmatised that no one dares talk about it.

Few people know about it, but New Zealand has had its own experience with unnecessary death for lack of a termination.

Back in 2006, before our abortion law was reformed, the Health and Disability Commissioner (‘HDC’) commenced an investigation into the death of Ms B in 2004.

Ms B had a heart condition called aortic stenosis. This means her blood flow from her heart to her body’s main artery, the aorta, was partially blocked. She had an aortic valve replacement in 1997, and recovered. In 1999 Ms B gave birth to a son.

In 2004, after seeking advice from her cardiologist and receiving the all clear, Ms B again became pregnant.

Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Ms B’s aortic stenosis returned. When she heard the news, Ms B became tearful and said she wished she could terminate the pregnancy, but didn’t think it was possible so late in her pregnancy.

In reality, termination of Ms B’s pregnancy would have been approved almost instantly had she been able to put the question to certifying consultants. Under the Crimes Act 1961 in force at the time, termination after 20 weeks was legal to ‘save the life of the woman or girl or to prevent serious permanent injury to her physical or mental health.’

But none of the doctors involved with Ms B’s care, nor her midwife, were prepared to discuss abortion with her. The HDC report refers to their actions as ‘delicately side-stepping an awkward issue.’ Given the clarity with which Ms B expressed her desire that medical staff not ‘ me be a baby incubator and then letting me die,’ it could also be characterised as obstruction.

Ms B was hospitalised. A termination followed by valve replacement surgery could have saved her life, even at this point. But her medical team insisted she continue the pregnancy. In the end, her condition deteriorated rapidly, and both she and her baby died during emergency surgery.

What killed Ms B?

Was it the silence around abortion that made ignorance of the law (and how certifying consultants applied it) so typical? Was it a kind of preciousness on the part of Ms B’s cardiologist, obstetrician, and midwife that would not let them acknowledge Ms B’s concerns for her own life? Were they full-blown conscientious objectors? Or did their moral or professional arrogance obscure the enormity of letting a woman die in the hope of saving a foetus?

It seems clear that the reason Ms B’s medical team did not listen to her was that she was talking about abortion. If abortion had been treated as normal health care, not covered in arcane legal restrictions and sexist shame, then Ms B and her family could have pushed back more effectively. Her medical team’s indifference to Ms B’s wishes could have received appropriate condemnation well before it turned up in an HDC report.

It seems clear to me that what killed Ms B was abortion stigma.

Nowadays, after law reform, a case like this is unlikely to happen. This is not only because we have a new law, but also because the debate around law reform put a big dent in abortion stigma, and established abortion as health care that people have a right to. But as long as abortion remains ‘controversial’, the battle is not over.

The Effects of Decriminalising Abortion

The Effects of Decriminalising Abortion

by Terry Bellamak

New Zealand is finally discussing abortion law reform. One of the first items of business on the government’s agenda is taking abortion out of the Crimes Act. This promises to make abortion easier to access, reduce delays, and reduce the unwarranted stigma around a procedure that is safe, routine health care.

Some folk have expressed a concern that taking abortion out of the Crimes Act will somehow make abortion less safe for people who decide to receive abortion care. 

In its comprehensive report on law reform, the New Zealand Law Commission considered the matter and concluded that fear was unfounded, for the following reasons:

  • All other health services are sufficiently protected by the health regulatory regime and by general offences in the Crimes Act. There is no reason abortion should be any different.
  • There are two groups of people whose actions are currently criminalised in relation to providing abortion care. Both would still meet with serious consequences for providing abortion care improperly even after abortion is taken out of the Crimes Act.
    • Health practitioners who provide abortion care without being qualified to do so, or who do not meet proper standards of care are subject to professional disciplinary action, and could also be charged with regulatory offences under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act or the Medicines Act. If they are negligent or fail to get informed consent from their patient, they could be charged with a criminal offence.
    • Unqualified people who attempt to provide abortion care can be charged with regulatory offences under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act or the Medicines Act, and their conduct may also constitute assault, injury, or wounding depending on whether the woman suffers actual bodily harm, and thus could be charged under the Crimes Act. 

It’s difficult to see how safety would be compromised if abortion care were regulated the same way as other medical care. Abortion care is very safe, and the earlier it is received the safer it is. Eliminating the delays our current laws promote would enable people to get abortion care earlier and thus more safely.

The report also makes the point that: 


Criminal offences are used to punish conduct that causes social harm and is considered morally reprehensible or inconsistent with important social values.

This treatment is inconsistent with treating abortion care as a health issue. Our current legal regime hypocritically criminalises abortion care while simultaneously fostering the practice of providing abortion in most cases, albeit in a manner that is cumbersome, patronising, and needlessly punitive.

By leaving this ridiculous system in place for over 40 years, Parliament has established it as the status quo. To try and pass off abortion care as morally reprehensible or inconsistent with important social values, Parliament would be making a liar of itself.

Taking abortion out of the Crimes Act will make abortion care safer, not less so.

Media Release: Support for NCW Law Reform Remit


11 October 2014              FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

ALRANZ Backs National Council of Women Remit on Abortion Law Reform; Urges Govt. Action

A remit calling for abortion law reform up for debate at this weekend’s National Council of Women conference adds to a growing chorus of voices that the new government should not ignore, Abortion Law Reform Association of NZ president, Dr. Morgan Healey, said today.

This government has the chance to act on an important issue that has been neglected for far too long, she said. Our outdated criminalised abortion laws have already been flagged by the U.N., and states and countries with similar laws are, one by one, changing them, Dr. Healey said.

“It’s curious that a government so committed to getting rid of regulations won’t address one of the most offensive statutes of all,” she said.

Dr. Healey pointed out that the Australian state of Tasmania decriminalised abortion last year, and Victoria did so in 2008. Meanwhile, in the UK, a meeting next week at the Houses of Parliament will discuss ‘whether, in the 21st century, we can find a better way to regulate abortion than through an antiquated Victorian law’.

“We already know there’s a better way to regulate abortion – and that’s to treat it as a health matter, not a criminal one,” she said.

The remit, from NCW’s Auckland branch, reads: “That NCWNZ request the government to review abortion law and practice with a view to simplifying it and ensuring a woman’s right to choose.” {ed update: The remit passed later on Saturday with a good majority; the June NCW circular (pdf) contains the remits and rationale.}

ALRANZ, which is a member of NCW, fully supports the remit, and hopes its passage will continue the discussion that began during the election campaign, when the Green Party adopted policy to remove abortion from the Crimes Act, Dr. Healey said.

The rationale for the remit urges NCW, as an organisation which has represented women for more than 120 years, to “take a leadership role in securing a review of the law, and clearly a position in favour of legal and practical arrangements that give women the bodily autonomy they have in regard to other medical and personal decisions.”

For more information about ALRANZ visit


Dr. Morgan Healey

ALRANZ National President 

ALRANZ: 021-082-76474



Why the Greens’ Abortion Policy Is So Important

By Dr. Morgan Healey, President ALRANZ

Note: Alranz exec members wrote two op-eds that were submitted to The New Zealand Herald (APN) and The Waikato Times (Fairfax) on 8 June, two days after the Green’s policy was announced. They weren’t published so we thought we’d reproduce them here. This is the first, by Morgan Healey, submitted to the Herald. We will post the second in a few days.)

voteForChoice_Page_2The Green Party last week became the first political party in Aotearoa New Zealand to set formal policy on abortion. With the ratification of their women’s health policy, the Greens took a momentous step forward in the fight for abortion law reform; something organisations like the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) have been advocating for since 1971. Despite what anti-abortion groups have said, this is not a radical or extreme policy. It actually places abortion within the continuum of sexual and reproductive health care – asserting what most of us already know – abortion is a necessary medical service that does not need to be regulated by archaic, confusing or harmful laws that restrict access and limit bodily autonomy. The Greens’ spokesperson on the policy, MP Jan Logie, was unambiguous in her statement about this: abortion is not a crime, so let’s stop treating it as such!

While this policy does not change the current criminalisation of abortion, it is important for two reasons: it makes abortion a topic for discussion in an election year, and it sends the message that women must be trusted to make their own reproductive decisions.

Talking about abortion in an election year is a brave step and one I applaud the Greens for taking. I know it would have been just as easy to wait and release the policy after the election or not bother to talk about abortion at all (which seems to be the political default), but they didn’t. This sends a clear signal not just to the electorate but also to the other parties: women’s autonomy and rights should not be ignored for political gain. We haven’t seen this type of political commitment to reproductive justice since then Labour MP Steve Chadwick tried to tackle abortion in 2010, and was subsequently punished for her bold efforts.

I recognize that abortion is not going to be the defining issue of this election. ALRANZ is a non-partisan organisation, and as such hopes Labour, National, New Zealand First, Māori and Internet/Mana sit up and take notice of the Greens’ action; not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it also contests the ‘scariness’ of abortion as a political issue.  If the Greens’ policy can begin to normalise abortion as topic for discussion, then this is indeed a win for the pro-choice movement.

And this leads into the second reason the Greens’ policy is so important – taking the exceptional out of abortion and attempting to destigmatise it. On average, one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. In 2012, 14, 745 women had an abortion in Aotearoa. I doubt any of these women planned to have an unintended or unwanted pregnancy, but for whatever reason they made the best choice for themselves in that moment. Whether or not they realized it, their actions were governed by the Crimes Act, their decision was not their own, but sanctioned by two certifying consultants; and 98% of them were deemed mentally at risk in order to meet the restrictive grounds for an abortion.  The only thing exceptional about New Zealand’s abortions laws is how unacceptable they are, and that in 2014 women continue to be treated as second-class citizens. What is even more appalling is that in general politicians have allowed this to happen.

The Greens have challenged this reality, asserting it is time to trust pregnant people to make decisions about their reproduction. To quote Logie,

“…it is time that abortion is removed from the Crimes Act, and brought out from that shadow of judgment and mistrust of women, because ultimately it is a health issue.”

For far too long politicians have been able to remain silent on abortion. I am hopeful that this new policy will encourage and enable other political parties to step out of shadows of anti-choice intimidation and fear mongering. The pregnant people of this country deserve more than fragmented and criminalised reproductive health care. The electorate of this country can help to change this – ask your local candidate or political party about abortion this election year. Make sure politicians know that the continued criminalization of abortion is not acceptable and it is time for law reform.